By Scott Scanlon
Paulette Hotchkiss and Carol Diana can’t help thinking back on departed loved ones as they go about their mission the first Wednesday of every month at Trinity Old Lutheran Church.
The two women are among a growing number of volunteers who tend to those with dementia a few hours a month so their caregivers can get a needed break.
“I just thought this was a good way of giving back, helping other people,” said Hotchkiss, of the Town of Tonawanda, who helped care for her father-in-law, Richard Hotchkiss, and mother, Pauline Mohr, as they struggled in recent years with similar conditions. Diana was the principal caregiver for her husband, Richard, who died two years ago at age 86.
The Alzheimer’s Association of Western New York trained volunteers for the Old Trinity program, in Amherst, before it began in November 2014. For three or four hours each month, caregivers of those who have some form of dementia can drop off their loved one for activities that include sing-alongs, crafts, chair yoga, pet therapy and lunch. Every guest who plays Bingo wins, and each gets a small, donated prize.
These are social, not medical, respite programs. Guests need not be ambulatory, but must be able to use the restroom with little assistance, and volunteers can’t dispense medications.
Eight such programs exist across Erie County. All are free. Half started within the last four months and another is planned for next spring in Lockport, said Rachel Rotach, program director for the regional Alzheimer’s Association chapter. The chapter looks to reach out next year to offices for the aging in other outlying counties about prospects for similar programs.
The chapter had a respite program but found that religious organizations work better.
Churches and community centers and spaces work well, Rotach said, because they have a caring group of would-be volunteers, enough space for guests, and kitchens to provide meals. The association has helped set up the programs with grants from Erie County Senior Services.
“For a while it seemed we were just going to have one client with us,” said Sue Wloch (pronounced “Lock”), Trinity programing minister and respite program coordinator. “We ended up with three the first time. We now have nine people registered and seven on a waiting list. Our biggest need is more volunteers.”
Hotchkiss and Diana are the only two of about 15 volunteers who have lost loved ones to dementia-related causes, Wloch said. Not all volunteers attend the church, she said, and those served by the program come from various denominations and faiths.
“All of us are very committed to the program and realize the benefit,” she said. “I can’t tell you how it makes us feel when we see one of our clients smile. They’re enjoying themselves. And for us to be able to give caregivers a break – I can’t imagine what it’s like for them to be going through this experience – is a wonderful thing.”
As their husbands mingle, the caregivers look forward to a few hours for themselves to shop, run errands or relax. They and other caregivers – several of whom attend Alzheimer’s support groups together – also sometimes spend some of the time at lunch together in a diner nearby as they compare stories and caregiving strategies.
“The volunteers are wonderful, caring people and we thank them for it,” said Kathleen Warner, of Lancaster, whose husband was among the first to sign on to the program. “It’s a downward spiral if you just keep feeling down. Love has a whole new meaning, and it’s good. I’m thanking God for the years we’ve had together, and the nine grandchildren.”
Even the most quiet of respite guests appreciate the activities – and the food.
“What’s not to enjoy?” said guest Tom Sprankle, dressed in slacks, pressed shirt and a Christmas tie.
Sprankle led a birthday song for another guest – and was among those to encourage The Buffalo News Refresh editor to eat a cupcake after he politely declined.
“We won’t tell if you won’t,” he said. “What happens here stays here.”
Related: Find specific information on all eight Erie County respite programs in the Family section of the Refresh Calendar, Page 15
On the Web: See a photo gallery of the Trinity Old Lutheran respite program at galleries.buffalonews.com